Grand Ole Opry star Skeeter Davis died Sunday (Sept. 19) in Nashville after a long struggle with cancer. She was 72. Although she rarely performed in recent years, she continued to maintain close contact with her fans. On June 10 of this year, she made a brief appearance at the Golden Voice awards show in Franklin, Tenn., during the CMA Music Festival. Too weak to sing, she nonetheless took to the stage to update her fans on her condition and thank them for their support.
Davis was born Mary Frances Penick in Dry Ridge, Ky., on Dec. 30, 1931. She said her grandfather named her “Skeeter” because she was “always buzzing from one place to another.” While still in high school, she teamed up with Betty Jack Davis (no relation) to form a musical duo they called the Davis Sisters. Later, the two performed at radio stations in Lexington, Ky., Wheeling, W.Va., Detroit and Cincinnati.
Their first label deal — with Fortune Records — yielded the “sisters” no hits. But in 1952, they signed to RCA Records. The following year, they scored an enormous success with “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.” It rose to No. 1 on the country charts and remained there for eight weeks. On Aug. 2, 1953, while the song was still riding high, the two were involved in a head-on car crash that killed Betty Jack and seriously injured Skeeter. For a brief period, the duo continued with Betty Jack’s sister, Georgia, substituting. But the act never recovered its momentum. Eventually, Davis moved to Nashville to record for RCA as a solo act with Chet Atkins as her producer.
Her first solo country hit came in 1958 with “Lost to a Geisha Girl,” a song that “answered” Hank Locklin’s “Geisha Girl” from the year before. She joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1959. In 1960, she made her debut on the pop charts with another answer song, “(I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too,” a response to Locklin’s “Please Help Me, I’m Falling.”
In a chart career that spanned more than 20 years, Davis racked up 41 country hits and eight pop ones. Her biggest by far came in 1962-63 with the wistful and tormented “The End of the World.” It made it to No. 2 on both the country and pop charts and went to No. 1 on the adult contemporary listing. Her other Top 10’s included “Set Him Free” (1959), “My Last Date With You” (1961), “Optimistic” (1961), “Where I Ought To Be” (1962), “I’m Saving My Love” (1963), “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” (1964) and “What Does It Take (To Keep a Man Like You Satisfied)” (1967). Her final chart single was “I Love Us” in 1976. She also recorded modest hits during the ’60s and early ’70s with Bobby Bare, Don Bowman and George Hamilton IV.
In 1973, the Grand Ole Opry suspended Davis for more than a year after she criticized the Nashville police during her Opry performance for arresting a group of “Jesus people” at a local mall. “I felt so unloved when I got kicked off the Opry,” she told an interviewer. “I’m childlike in many ways. It seems to me like I’ve been a rebel all my life, too.”
Davis was married and divorced three times: To early sweetheart Kenneth Depew, to disc jockey and TV personality Ralph Emery and to NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato. Her autobiography, Bus Fare to Kentucky, was published in 1993.
Funeral services are scheduled for Wednesday (Sept. 22) at 1 p.m. at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.